It's no secret that asbestos is dangerous.
But it might come as a surprise how some businessmen willfully put young labourers - college and high school students among them - in serious harm's way, and just to save a buck.
"I have been to many funerals over the years," says one Surrey consultant, with 25 years in the asbestos abatement business.
"It's like putting a loaded gun to a worker's head except the exposure doesn't show up for 20 to 25 to 30 years."
For many years asbestos was considered to be a miracle building material. It's heat resistant, fire resistant, absorbs sound, resists electrical and chemical damage, and is relatively cheap. The problem is, it's also poisonous.
Asbestos represents six types of fibrous silicate minerals. These minerals had been used since the late 1800s in North America, in building and construction materials, until their dangers were discovered a few decades ago.
Any building constructed prior to 1990 is likely to contain some asbestos and those built before 1984 will contain a lot. Once inhaled, fine particles lodge themselves deep inside the lungs, where their presence over time can lead to horrific diseases like lung cancer, asbestosis and mesothelioma.
Workers in the residential demolition business can be protected from exposure if the material is safely identified and removed. Problem is, doing things the right way is more expensive and takes more time than cutting corners, so some developers and owners seek out labs or consultants who are willing to prepare bogus reports that indicate a building contains no asbestos when it is indeed present.
One Surrey consultant, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of what effect this report might have on his business, said unscrupulous developers motivated by saving money and cutting time have figured out that with a falsified report they can gut the interior of a house before going to get a demolition permit. "There's a lack of a reporting method for the regulatory board to catch on to," the consultant said. "It's like the Wild West.
"I have been asked a handful of times every year for 25 years, from different developers or major players, how much money it would cost to change my report," he said.
"Surrey is a hot spot, obviously, because Surrey continues to grow rapidly. Buildings coming down, new development."
Lorne Heslop, owner of a demolition and recycling outfit called Heslop Enterprises Ltd., knows personally the damage inhaling asbestos dust can do. He's undergone surgery to remove roughly 40 tumours from his lungs.
"The problem with asbestos is you don't see it, smell it or taste it until you can't breathe any more," Heslop said.
Heslop has been in the building demolition business for more than 35 years and says he trusts only a handful of the more than 30 consultants in the Lower Mainland who provide laboratory analysis of materials suspected of containing asbestos. Some consultants, he said, will report whatever their client wants them to.
Mike Holloway, of Assertive Excavating & Demolition Ltd., echoed that.
"It's readily available for people to buy false results for Hazmat reports," Holloway said. "Even if they're not buying false ones, so-called consultants can just go out and write whatever they want, and it's not enforced. They're not taking adequate samples to protect the workers and the public. It's too easy for us to still be exposed to asbestos."
Heslop advises homeowners to pay attention to some important details when shopping for someone to tear their old house down.
Seeing as each city and municipality has its own particular bylaw requirements governing building demolition, Heslop says clients should consult with their local city hall before getting a demolition permit.
"The lowest quote is not always the cheapest in the end," he warns. "Always ask for a minimum of five references and visit at least three of the completed job sites. Walk around and look into any forest or bush area for demolition debris hidden by the contractor."
Because asbestos insurance is costly, and not all hazardous material consultants and asbestos abatement contractors have it, Heslop says, "you must ask if they have it." He strongly advises people in the market for a contractor to make sure they chose one with a proven track record of protecting their clients from any liabilities.
Clients should also ask the hazardous material consultant and asbestos abatement and demolition contractors to include them on their asbestos-coverage insurance, as a co-rider. He does so as standard practice, and is covered for $5 million. "That way my clients know I'm protecting them," he said. "If I screw up, they're covered. I would like to see consultants have to do the same thing."
If a consultant won't back up his report, Heslop said, "I'd be very leery of doing business with him."
Heslop added that a "good contractor" will give his clients receipts indicating what material was dumped, and where.
"Ultimately, it all falls back on the homeowner, unless he's on the contractor's insurance."
Don Whyte, executive director of the Hazardous Materials Association, finds it "extremely frustrating" that there is no certification-training program for test sampling consultants in B.C., like there is in Alberta. His association represents 15 hazardous materials contractors, mostly in the Lower Mainland. "We're the people who endeavour to do this properly," he said. "Our contractors are out trying to perform to an industry standard and they're continuously being undermined by contractors that are not only circumventing the regulations but deliberately circumventing, and sometimes quite sophisticatedly. They're getting to be very good at it and sometimes they're smarter than the regulatory agencies."
Whyte said WorkSafe BC doesn't recognize who's competent and who's not when it comes to both contractors and consultants who analyze test samples. "There's no bridge between WorkSafe BC and the Ministry of the Environment, and there should be. Those two agencies operate in isolation from one another on these issues. There's a lot that could be done."
Al Johnson, vice president of Prevention Services, WorkSafe BC, concedes there is a problem with regulating consultants. "You or I could hang out a shingle tomorrow and start up in this business," he noted.
However, he added, certification is not a be-all and end-all solution, either. "Just because you have a driver's licence," Johnson said, "it doesn't mean you are driving it correctly."
Certain financial considerations make it tempting for some developers to cut corners. A safety officer with a hazardous material abatement company who, like the consultant, spoke on condition of anonymity, said developers find it cheaper to do business with private labs in the United States, over which B.C. officials have no oversight.
"People are getting 'clean' reports that are not necessarily clean," the safety officer said. "Homeowners typically go for the cheapest report. Anybody would. You get what you pay for."
Whyte agreed. "They call them sweatshop labs down there."
Moreover, as Holloway explained, the cost of doing things the right way can be "astronomical" because drywall containing asbestos must be shipped to Alberta. "We can't accept it in our landfills here. When drywall decomposes it makes a gas, and their water table in Alberta is lower, it doesn't leach. Scientifically, it can't go here."
Because it's expensive to ship the drywall to Alberta, that's the reason why you sometimes see it dumped in local parks, at the sides of streets and in ditches.
Those consultants and contractors who insist on earning an honest living sometimes feel like they're pushing a rock uphill, only to have it roll down again.
"The good companies, if they don't like the report, they will do samples themselves and pay for it out of their own pocket if they have to, to keep the workers safe. The bad companies just demo it, throw it in a box and take it to the dump," Heslop said.
Some operators providing asbestos abatement service do so without any procedures in place or qualifications to assess the risk a house might represent.
"I've had houses where I know there's been asbestos," Heslop said. "I've given the owner a price; he's basically said f-you. And I come back on the weekend, and school-age kids are in there ripping drywall out that I know is contaminated. I phone up WCB, they come out, shut them down, and decontaminate the kids. The kids go home, and they'll find out in 20 plus years if they're alive or dead. They've got no recourse. The homeowner might get a fine or he might not."
"When they're 40 and they have a family, they're going to be on their death bed. And it's not a pleasant death - it hurts," Heslop said.
"If your kid's going to work on the weekend removing drywall," he advised, "pay him $50 to stay home, out of your own pocket."
Al Johnson, of WorkSafe, has 17 inspectors in the Lower Mainland, working six days a week to ensure asbestos is being properly identified and removed during residential building demolitions.
"We have had some success in putting some people out of work," he said. "I think we've made some good solid headway."
He pointed out that not all infractions are the result of devious conduct. "In some cases it's a lack of understanding."
Johnson said the fines for companies caught not properly handling or removing material that contains asbestos range from $2,500 to $500,000. A stop work order is usually the first step, with repeat fines being multiplied by a percentage of the business operator's payroll. "The larger the company, the larger the fine," Johnson said.
The safety officer, who requested anonymity, believes WorkSafe is trying their best, but added, "It's like playing whack-a-mole right now."
According to Whyte, roughly 100 houses are being demolished in the Lower Mainland every month. "We just don't have the manpower to do the enforcement," he said.
Some in the business consider the fines to be light.
"A lot of these guys are like 'that's just the price of doing business,'" the safety officer said. "Unfortunately, they don't calculate in the price of these kids' health or the neighbours' health, or the people breathing it in as the truck goes down the road."
Whyte and other people in the business think jail time is appropriate, in some cases. "It's criminal activity," Whyte said. "These guys should be charged with assault."
He noted that between 1996 and 2005 there were 307 work-related fatalities in B.C., and of those, 145 were asbestos related. That's 15 victims each year.
Holloway agreed. "They should be able to make people do jail time for this. They're poisoning people."
Heslop said it's up to the politicians "to sit down and give the proper people authority to actually do something. Like jail time would be nice."
"It would be great to have jail time, but that's unrealistic." Imposing severe fines, he figures, is a more practical solution. "If you hit them hard enough, they'll see it's cheaper to do it right."
Last year a Surrey businessman in the building demolition trade was sentenced to 60 days in prison for civil contempt of court after he ignored a court order telling him to stop exposing his employees to carcinogenic asbestos.
Interestingly, Arthur Moore, who was then doing business as AM Environmental, wasn't jailed for putting his workers at risk by exposing them to asbestos fibres but rather, was jailed for ignoring a court order that warned him not to put them at risk.
Back in August, 2010, a B.C. Supreme Court judge in Vancouver had banned Moore from being in the asbestos abatement business and demolition or drywall business after WorkSafe BC went after him. Despite being served with the court order, Moore continued in the business under various different names, working on as many as 15 sites. More court hearings followed, with the British Columbia Court of Appeal eventually finding he had "grievously endangered workers under his direction" by failing to provide them with proper safety gear or training. Moore apologized to the court, saying he wouldn't do it again.
Nevertheless, Justice Richard Goepel sentenced him to 60 days in jail for having "deliberately flaunted for an extended time a court order intended to protect worker safety."
He did so, Goepel noted, within a day of being told by the court not to. "Such conduct cannot go unpunished," the judge said.
© Copyright 2013